The North Eastern region of Thailand, Isaan, is renowned for its palette challenging food. Fermented fish, salted raw crab, fried bugs, and an often an ungodly amount of chilies. Surprisingly though, these are all dead good for you. However there is one dish that has caused the rate of liver cancer in Thailand to skyrocket.
Goi Pla, a raw fish salad, is made from small river fish which are chopped up, mixed with live red ants, and chased down with a shot of local moonshine. Not unlike sashimi, the raw fish has a soft silky texture, and the ants provide a nice sour crunch for contrast. Throw a few herbs, chilli, and a squeeze of lime in there, and Bob’s your uncle. So far so good right? Well the problem is that these fish also carry a type of larvae that once consumed, travels down to your liver and attacks it. Sad face.
This has been so much of a problem that liver cancer makes up 50% of all cancer cases here. Compare this to less than 10% worldwide and it is quite shocking. In one village it was recorded that 80% of the inhabitants had been infected by the fluke.
So what is the miracle method scientists are suggesting to stop these infections? Quite simply, cook it. Who knew? In cultures such as this, it is hard to break old habits, but slowly those rates are dropping with increased awareness on the subject. Unfortunately some people still aren’t listening, and ‘forget’ to cook the fish, or they just don’t want to be told what to do by ‘The Man’.
You would be surprised how many people here believe that strong whiskey is the best preventative measure of any food poisoning.
To be honest I’m slightly inclined to believe them. My new guilty pleasure is the beef version of this very same dish (sans the red ants) Goi Neua.
I regularly sit down at my local Isaan food shack in the early evening and order it in full knowledge that the beef has been sitting around for a substantial amount of time, in full knowledge that it is being prepared in a kitchen that a health inspector wouldn’t even gratify with a visit.
However, This Is Thailand, the same restricting rules of the universe that affect the rest of the world don’t apply here. I pick up a ball of sticky rice, smatter it with raw beef bits, take a bite of a chili, and follow it down with some beer. It’s like a beef tartare, except it’s not made from the finest beef fillet, and it’s not subtle in any way. It is mixed with some sort of bloody tincture that creates a very bitter flavour, ground toasted rice, mint, raw onion, chili, garlic, and a squeeze of lime on the side.
Despite these risks, I am still alive. Combined with the added caveman buzz of consuming the raw flesh of a dead animal, I would say in that carnal moment, I’m better than alive. Most importantly though, my tapeworm is stronger than ever. He says ‘Hi!’